Two-thirds of USPS rural carriers see significant pay cuts under new system

The Postal Service is telling lawmakers that rural carriers have the resources they need to ensure fair compensation under a new pay system that’s been in the works for more than a decade.

But Senate Democrats and rural carriers facing pay cuts say USPS and its union have given them insufficient training on the Rural Route Evaluated Compensation System (RRECS) that went into effect last month.

About two-thirds of rural carriers, or about 14,000 employees nationwide, are facing substantial pay cuts under the RRECS system. Many carriers have been told their pay will be cut by several thousand dollars annually, while delivering mail and packages on the same routes they’ve had for years.

Rural carriers, already experiencing burnout and short-staffing nationwide, say the RRECS rollout leaves them frustrated and in a precarious financial situation. Others are considering leaving USPS and finding work elsewhere.

The new system is the product of arbitration between USPS and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association (NRLCA) more than a decade ago, after both parties failed to agree on how to design a new pay system on their own for rural carriers.

Unlike letter carriers and city carrier assistants, rural carriers work under an evaluated pay system, and most mail routes get an annual evaluation based on how long it takes to complete and how much mail it receives.

Mary Ann Simpson, the director of the USPS’s government liaison office, told Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a May 19 letter that evaluations for a majority of rural routes were completed more than five years ago, and that about two-thirds of rural carriers will see a reduction in pay under RRECS.

“Due to continuing declines in mail volume, along with changes in consumer behavior, approximately two-thirds of the newly calculated route evaluations have decreased. This, in turn, reduces the rural carriers’ corresponding salaries,” Simpson wrote.

Wyden led five other senators in a letter last month outlining their concern about RRECS.

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) signed onto the letter.

The senators, in their May 5 letter, said they recognized the decision to build RRECS “was not made unilaterally” by USPS, but said it is critical USPS fixes the known issues with the system before its implementation.

“We understand the need to update the rural letter carrier route evaluation system and ensure that rural carriers are compensated for labor that has gone unaccounted for under the current system,” they wrote. “However, RRECS is not narrowly tailored to address these problems and is reportedly rife with glaring flaws in its implementation and training for its adoption.”

Rural carriers report that they have not received proper training on how to ensure they are logging their work correctly on handheld scanners, or how those scans translate into their take-home pay.

The senators are asking USPS to work with rural letter carriers to reduce the system’s impact on their working conditions.

“At a time when USPS is struggling to deliver mail to rural areas, due in part to an inability to recruit rural letter carriers, we fear that RRECS’ impact on working conditions and pay will further deteriorate a vital service to our rural communities,” the senators wrote.

Simpson, in her response to the senators’ letter, said delaying RRECS until May 6 allowed USPS and the NRLCA to review the underlying data, make “any appropriate corrections” and establish a joint resolution process.

“Please note that implementation of this system has not modified the job duties of rural carriers — their daily tasks and activities have not changed,” she wrote.

Most carriers compensated under RRECS will now input on average between 12 and 20 additional scans each day on a handheld scanner that reads and collects barcode data.

Simpson said training for those additional keystrokes was introduced last year and incorporated into the USPS Rural Carrier Academy.

An aide from Sen. Wyden’s office told Federal News Network last Friday that USPS’s response “fails to respond to Sen. Wyden’s concerns, or answer the specific questions he asked of the agency.”

“He is considering all possible options to ensure rural carriers are treated fairly and that rural mail service isn’t harmed by short-sighted USPS policies,” the aide said.

USPS spokesman David Partenheimer said the compensation system for rural letter carriers is a nationally negotiated pay system codified in the parties’ national agreement.

“The current modifications to the compensation system were the result of a previous interest arbitration proceeding and mandated by an interest arbitrator. The parties worked jointly for years to implement these new provisions and will continue to share data and information throughout the implementation process,” Partenheimer said.

10 years of mail decline ‘in one shot’

House lawmakers also voiced their concerns to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who gave the House Oversight and Accountability Committee an update last month on USPS’s 10-year reform plan.

Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) told DeJoy at the May 17 hearing that rural carriers in her district didn’t find out about RRECS “until it was actually being implemented.”

DeJoy said the new pay system has been in the works since 2012, and that USPS and NRLCA had decided on the structure of RRECS around 2019.

From there, USPS worked with NRLCA on a pilot of the new system, and sampled data on 4,000 routes.

“I don’t know every single detail as to how this got communicated, but I can’t imagine that it wasn’t communicated effectively to everybody,” DeJoy said.

DeJoy said rural carriers are receiving lower pay under RRECS because the new pay system reflects a steep decline in mail volume over the past decade.

“The result of it is unfortunate, because a lot of it has resulted in the aggregation of mail decline over 10 years, impacting the rural carriers in one shot,” DeJoy said.

“I believe that all the participants were told and known that this has been coming. It’s an unfortunate consequence, but on the same token, we need to align the compensation for the work that is being done,” he added.

Edmund Carley, national president of United Postmasters and Managers of America (UPMA), said disagreements over data have been a core feature of RRECS since its beginning, when a third-party arbitrator stepped in to broker the deal between USPS and NRLCA.

“An arbitrator asked the Postal Service and the union in an arbitration, ‘OK, the union says it takes this long to deliver a package. The Postal Service says it takes this long. Give me some real data.’ And the union and the Postal Service looked at each other and went, ‘We don’t have real data,’” Carley said.

Carley said the level of pay cuts for rural carriers reflects the severity of declining mail volume over the past decade.

“You take out 10 years’ worth of reductions on a route in one afternoon, it’s going to be pretty drastic. What should have happened is, we should have counted that route every year for 10 years, and it lost a little bit each time, so it wasn’t quite so drastic,” he said.

‘That costs me money, and that’s through no fault of my own’

No one disputes a significant decline in mail volume over the past decade, but scores of rural carriers said RRECS doesn’t collect a full picture of the number of stops and the volume of mail and packages they deliver on their routes.

Jared Lankford, a rural carrier in Missouri for more than six years, said he expects to lose $10,000 a year under RRECS, compared to what he previously made on the route.

Lankford said he expected to see some reduction in pay under RRECS, but said USPS and NRCLA haven’t been transparent about the new pay process.

“My mail volume has fallen. The only trouble is, I can’t take the numbers that I’m given and verify them, because the Post Office still hasn’t been transparent and released all the data necessary to verify the numbers,” Lankford said.

Lankford said about a decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon for rural carriers to deliver about 4,000 pieces of mail every day on their routes. But he said a “heavy day” on his route means he delivers about 2,200 pieces of mail. On some days, he said he delivers about 500 pieces of mail.

Among his frustrations with the new pay system, Lankford said RRECS sets unrealistic metrics for how quickly rural carriers should complete certain tasks, like sorting mail at the beginning of their workdays, or delivering a package to someone’s front door.

“I have to be able to process 86 letters in a minute, which is an insane goal. I get 30 seconds to take a package from my vehicle and deliver it to a person’s door,” Lankford said.

Lankford said the RRECS system also isn’t properly accepting data on “parent-child routes,” in which a rural carrier’s route crosses into multiple ZIP codes.

The system, he said, will show a carrier, for example, completing a route in Mount Vernon, Missouri, but doesn’t show any deliveries made for a “child route” in the neighboring town of Miller.

“The system cannot compute two ZIP codes of coverage,” he said.

Lankford said cluster box units on his route, which account for mail for multiple residences, are also being counted as a single mailbox under RRECS.

“I have lost 39 boxes off my route. That costs me money, and that’s through no fault of my own. It’s the math of this system that they still have,” he said.

Lankford said his issues with RRECS are common among other carriers, and that USPS and NRLCA delayed its rollout several times to address some of these issues, but have yet to get to the root of these problems.

“Instead of fixing those before implementation, the Post Office took the position of, let’s go ahead and put this in place, let everyone go down in pay, and then we’ll just come back and fix these mistakes a little bit later,” Lankford said.

Dave Stager, a rural letter carrier in Michigan, told the USPS Board of Governors at a meeting last month to “immediately begin oversight and investigation” of RRECS.

“Throughout RRECS’s development, USPS has promised transparency, yet RRECS so far has been anything but clear. The new pay system is based on complicated algorithms, mostly from data gathered by scanners that are notoriously unreliable, seeming like a new high-speed train trying to run on old tracks,” Stager said.

Another rural carrier, in an email to Wyden’s office, said poor reception on their route means the scanner isn’t picking up some scans.

“My scanner sometimes shows hundreds of missing packages when I come back to the office, even though I was certain I have scanned them at the delivery point,” the carrier said.

Stager said he and other carriers he’s spoken with don’t understand or agree with much of the information on the route data printout they’ve received.

“They are extremely confusing and include information we know to be inaccurate, such as not giving us credit for many stops and tasks we do on a daily basis,” Stager said.

Stager said confusion also stems from a lack of training and communication about the new pay system, which he said ranges “from grossly inadequate to almost non-existent.”

“These carriers are now working has hard or harder for less pay, causing major stress and financial hardship for thousands of postal workers and their families,” Stager said. “Whether this stuff is intentional or not, I believe most rural carriers feel that RRECS is robbing us.”

‘We were essential workers, and now we get this’

Rural carriers are also frustrated that RRECS accounts for a decade of declining mail volume, but not an unprecedented surge in package volume that rural carriers saw during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lankford estimates he was delivering about 300 packages a day in 2020, but didn’t see any increase in pay under a route that had been evaluated before COVID-19.

“If we’d have been under the RRECS system, we would have been paid an astronomical amount, because packages are worth more than mail,” Lankford said. “The Post Office knows that if they can push RRECS through, the vast majority of the routes are going to come down in pay.”

USPS reports its package volume remains above pre-COVID levels, but Amazon has also been delivering more of its own packages.

“There’s not a good solution underneath this pay scale, which is why we don’t have the transparency that we need on our numbers,” Lankford said.

Another rural carrier in Oregon said rural carriers “haven’t been properly trained at all,” and that coworkers are making mistakes, like not signing in on the correct route when doing multiple routes in a day, or not being able to scan packages without barcodes.

“Our office has had the constant problem of hiring and keeping RCAs, and the RRECS system with lack of training is part of that,” the carrier said.

The rural carrier said RRECS is driving down morale for rural carriers who saw a surge in packages and workload during the COVID-19 pandemic, without an increase in pay.

“During COVID-19 everyone had to work so hard by covering for other routes because people were out sick and never having our scheduled day off. We were ‘essential workers’ and now we get this,” the carrier said.

Rural carriers have expressed frustration with NRLCA for not doing more to keep members in the loop on RRECS implementation and training.

“It’s kind of disheartening to us as members, when our own union won’t tell us what they’re doing. They tell us basically to trust us. But you’re not giving us any reason to trust,” Lankford said.

A spokesman for NRLCA didn’t respond to several email requests for comment.

Without more proactive backing from the union, Lankford helped lead a campaign to have dozens of rural carriers write to Wyden about their issues with RRECS.

More than 60 carriers wrote to Congress giving an account of their challenges under RRECS.

A postmaster at a post office in Oregon told Wyden’s office that the training managers received on RRECS implementation was “minimal at best.”

The postmaster said he and other managers received a 30-minute training over Zoom on the time and activity scans that make up much of carriers’ route evaluations.

“There is no way that anyone believes that these computer systems are going to be able to pay them correctly after the Postal Service claimed they were antiquated themselves,” the postmaster wrote.

A rural carrier in Oregon told Wyden’s office he’s “lucky” to only be facing a $4,000 annual pay cut, but only because he has spent dozens of hours researching and educating himself on the system on his own time.

“95% of the information I have has been from my own internet research on various forums from fellow carriers. And all of this training has been unpaid,” the carrier wrote. “This is a nightmare to a young adult trying to purchase a home and support a family.”

The carrier said USPS management at his post office provided a single sheet detailing “vital” scans and duties under RRECS, and that the union only provided summary details in a brief Zoom call.

A rural carrier in Marion County, Georgia, received a slight pay increase under RRECS, and said the new system is a “superior system” for evaluating routes, but said the rollout has been “a total failure because of a lack of transparency and training.”

“The data going into the system is 95% reliant on carriers inputting dozens of factors into our scanner daily.  These inputs, or ‘scans,’ as we call them, can be complicated to understand — thus, the need to be trained, and trained appropriately,” the carrier wrote.

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